Sunday 17 December 2017

Mental edge is now with Dubs

THERE was a very recent time when Kerry teams expected the best against Dublin.

Call it a psychological edge, or just an innate Kerry cockiness, but when it really mattered, trophy-laden men in green and gold believed they would prevail against pretenders in sky blue.

The flip side of that theory is that Dublin players, deep down, didn't believe they had Kerry's number.

Something quite dramatic has happened over the past 24 months, however. Suddenly, Pat Gilroy's Dubs can't stop beating Jack O'Connor's Kerry crew. They've won three on the bounce, twice in the league and -- most memorably -- last year's All-Ireland final, a first championship ambush of Kerry since 1977.

The fact that those games have been won by a cumulative margin of four points tells you something more: all three outings were in the balance in the home straight and Dublin had the 'cojones' (as O'Connor might put it) to dig out victory. So then, ahead of Saturday night's latest Allianz League rematch in Croke Park, are we talking about a brave new world where Dublin expect the best against Kerry?

"I would definitely think it has swung in favour of Dublin," suggests Kerry legend and Herald columnist Eoin Liston. "The last three occasions, coming out on top, is definitely an advantage. But it will definitely motivate Kerry too."

Over in the metropolitan camp, Colin Moran reckons Kerry will want to lay down a marker this weekend -- as much for their "mental sanity" as the brace of Division One points on offer.

"That All-Ireland final seemed to hurt them more than most," Moran expands, harking back to last September and a belief in the Kerry camp that they "let Dublin off the hook by letting them win that All-Ireland. Dublin won't fear them any more, the way they probably had a bit of a mental hang-up in the past."

Moran knows all about such psychological hang-ups, having soldiered so long in pursuit of that elusive Kerry scalp.

He featured in the two-game trip to Thurles in 2001; was a helpless spectator with a broken arm as Dublin succumbed in another quarter-final three years later; and then skippered his county to a nerve-tingling two-point defeat in the 2007 All-Ireland semi-final. Three different managers, same outcome.

During that era, Dublin would frequently engage in rollicking league games with Kerry. The occasional draw (2006 in Killarney, 2009 in Parnell Park) was interspersed with narrow defeats that seemed, at the time, like moral victories.

"In some ways we would come away from those games happy with the way we played ... but definitely, from a mental point of view, they had the edge over us," recalls Moran.

By the time summer rivalry was renewed, for the 2009 quarter-final, Moran was in injury-enforced retirement (April 2009) and now a selector as Dublin capitulated by 17 points. The performance of Gilroy's "startled earwigs" left the manager convinced that drastic surgery was the only way forward. And in a perverse way, their total collapse laid the foundations for Dublin's spectacular reinvention as a team with the belief to beat Kerry.

Much has been made, quite rightly, of Dublin's younger age profile post-2009 -- a new generation who hadn't been raised on a staple diet of Kerry-inflicted trauma. But they still had to learn on their feet, and in that respect their 2010 trip to Killarney was significant.

All-Ireland champions, Kerry, were minus plenty of key players and patently not at the same fitness levels as their gung-ho challengers for that February NFL opener. But as Moran notes: "Just to beat them was a monkey off the back."

'Bomber' Liston views the 2009 debacle as a watershed for Dublin in their relationship with Kerry.

"The biggest thing they got out of that hammering was they knew they had to work on their defence and get everyone to buy into it," he said. "No prima donnas. Everyone putting their shoulder to the wheel, because they had to have an unbelievable level of fitness to get up and down that field."

He reckons Gilroy deserves all the credit for this stunning transformation -- and yet that won't dull the pain for Kerry, convinced that last September was one that got away. Prior to Kevin McManamon's game-changing goal, Liston could see a Dublin team "about to crack", reverting to bad habits, giving away silly frees. But he adds: "They obviously had suffered a lot of pain -- you'd have to have suffered a lot of pain to be able to turn that match around."

Moran views those earlier wins as important stepping stones to the All-Ireland, adding: "That air of invincibility surrounding the green-and-gold jersey wasn't the same."

And that, in a nutshell, explains why Saturday night's clash is arguably more important to Kerry than Dublin.

"They would hate to think they were beaten four times in a row," admits Liston, while Moran concludes: "For the first time in a long time, Dublin have the belief that they can go and win the thing. They don't need a psychologist or anyone to tell them that any more."

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